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Case Basics
Docket No. 
(on behalf of the Petitioners)
(on behalf of the Respondent)
Facts of the Case 

David Washington pleaded guilty to murder in a Florida state court. At sentencing, his attorney did not seek out character witnesses or request a psychiatric evaluation. Subsequently, the trial court sentenced Mr. Washington to death finding no mitigating circumstances to rule otherwise. After exhausting his state court remedies, Mr. Strickland sought habeas corpus relief in a Florida federal district court. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right was violated because he had ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. The district court denied the petition. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. The court held that the Sixth Amendment accorded criminal defendants a right to counsel rendering "reasonably effective assistance given the totality of the circumstances." It then remanded the case to the district court to apply this standard and determine whether Mr. Washington's counsel was sufficiently prejudicial to justify the reversal of his sentence.


What standard should be applied to determine whether a convicted person's Sixth Amendment right to counsel has been violated so as to require reversal of a conviction or to set aside a death sentence?

Decision: 8 votes for Strickland, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Right to Counsel

The Supreme Court held that: (1) counsel's performance must be deficient; and (2) the deficient performance must have prejudiced the defense so as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial. With Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing for the majority, the Court counseled that in making a showing of deficient performance, the defendant must demonstrate that counsel's representation fell below an "objective standard of reasonableness." The Court also noted that to show prejudice, the defendant must show that there is a "reasonable probability" that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result would have been different. Here, the Court reasoned that Mr. Washington's counsel was not unreasonable. Moreover, the Court stated that even if counsel was unreasonable, counsel's conduct did not cause sufficient prejudice to Mr. Washington to warrant setting aside his death sentence.

Justice William J. Brennan wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part. He viewed the death sentence as per se cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Consequently, he would not have upheld Mr. Washington's sentence. Justice Thurgood Marshall also wrote separately, dissenting. He disagreed with the majority's holding in that in its attempt to make a uniform standard, it created one so malleable as to be virtually useless.

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STRICKLAND v. WASHINGTON. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 30 August 2015. <>.
STRICKLAND v. WASHINGTON, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 30, 2015).
"STRICKLAND v. WASHINGTON," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 30, 2015,